Budapest: A chilled weekend guide for exploring culture and history in the Hungarian Capital

Budapest has been on my list of weekend destinations for some time. It is undoubtedly beautiful, steeped in history, culture and if you ignore the stag parties (Which it’s pretty easy to do!) I think it is a somewhat underestimated European city.

Towering fairy tale spires, romantic gothic churches and the pockmarked buildings bearing their war wounds; Budapest’s architecture, culture and history are enough to rival Paris or Prague. With easy navigation through the cities two halves, Buda & Pest and very reasonable prices all make Budapest a fabulous option for a weekend visit.

Our weekend in Budapest was a much-needed break from our hectic jobs, and I was looking to redress the work-life balance for 48 hours. With this in mind, I wanted a luxurious weekend with a slightly more chilled itinerary and Budapest more than delivered.

Getting to Budapest

As we are bound by our working schedules, we took a late flight, 8.45 pm out of London Heathrow and we were on the ground, transferred to the hotel and checked-in by 1 am. Although it was a late arrival, it meant that we got all day Saturday rather than losing our Saturday morning to travel. Flights to Budapest operate regularly from London Heathrow with carriers such as British Airways, Lufthansa, Air France and Swiss International airlines. We took a taxi from the right outside the terminal which proved no issue as there were plenty to be had. The service was efficient, clean and reasonably priced around 6500HUF (£17-£20). For flights arriving after 10 pm, I would recommend a taxi as there are limited public transport options at this time.

Where to stay

Hilton

We booked our trip as part of the British Airways Hotel and flight deal, which is great IMG_9287.JPGservice allowing you to specify star rating, dates and price for your accommodation. We opted for the five-star Hilton Budapest located in the Buda Castle District. This was absolutely the best choice. Our room was a King guest room was a gorgeous view of Matthias Churchyard. The room was spotlessly clean and the staff couldn’t have been more helpful during our stay. Late check-in, storage for bags and sorting out room keys niggles; there was no problem they weren’t willing and happy to help with.

One of the biggest perks of the Hilton was breakfast. When I have the time, I’m a big breakfast fan. The Hilton offers the usual smorgasbord of continental and hot breakfasts including some phenomenal omelette offerings from the resident egg chef. However, food aside, it’s the view from your breakfast table that can ignite your appetite for adventure. I would advise arriving fairly early between 7.30 – 8.30am to breakfast to secure one of the window tables.

What to do

Bus Tour

This was a new one for my husband and I. Normally we would opt for solely exploring the city on foot. However, after a few hours of exploration in the blistering heat, the kind of heat where you can smell the asphalt, we came across the Big Bus tour. A Deluxe Ticket came with hop on and off for three days, River Cruise, Buda Castle Shuttle return, Night Tour and Guided Walking Tour. With so many options we felt it would be beneficial in helping us see more of the city in a short space of time. The ticket cost €36 and was worth every penny.

The bus stops are easily located across the city and the historical commentary you can plug into was particularly interesting. Driving past seemingly unremarkable buildings to discover they have a detailed and fascinating history. Such things we would never have known by simply wandering past on foot.

River Cruise

Take to the water. As part of our Big Bus ticket, a river cruise was included. We opted for the sunset cruise on Saturday evening. Watching the sunset above the city from the water brought a whole new perspective on our trip. The commentary was detailed and informative and helped to make sense of the history on both sides of the river. Snacks and drinks were also available throughout the cruise.

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Buda Castle – Budapest History Museum

I absolutely recommend a walk around the castle district and Buda Castle itself. Despite various reconstructions healing the wounds of war the whole area and particularly the medieval part is still completely charming. Although Budapest is littered with museums and galleries, we opted for the Budapest History Museum. We wanted to experience a broader history of the city, and the Budapest History Museum was perfect. The exhibitions depict the 2000 years of Budapest’s turbulent history. From the Austro Hungarian empire to the horrors of World War Two.

The Budapest History Museum is open from Tuesday – Sunday between 10 am – 6 pm with an adult ticket costing 2400HUF.

Margaret Island

Imperiously sitting in the middle of the Danube is Margaret Island. Margaret Island is 500m wide and 2.5km long but, despite its small size, this gloriously green public park is packed with things to do. The island is located between Árpád Bridge and Margit Bridge and is easily accessed on foot.

For such a meagre strip of land, Margret Island boasts a varied past. From Royal hunting Snapseed - Copy (13).jpggrounds, the victim of a great flood in 1838 to the site of a Dominican Nunnery where King Bela famously sent his daughter Margaret after the Mongols departure from Hungary. Since that time the island has been known as Margaret Island.

We spent a very pleasant hour or so meandering around the park, taking in the musical fountain and availing ourselves of the various ice-cream sellers.

Buda Tower

Snapseed - Copy (7).jpgOnce part of the 13th Century Church of St Mary Magdalene, this stunning tower is all that remains after the church was heavily bombed during World War Two. A trip to the top is absolutely worth the panoramic views of the city. Be warned it is high, but the areas are enclosed and the steps although steep do have handrails.

A ticket costs 1500HUF but there are significant discounts for students or those who hold a Castle Shuttle Bus ticket. The Buda Tower is open every day from 10 am to 6 pm. Please be aware that opening times are different if you are visiting during January or February.

 

Fisherman’s Bastion

The Fisherman’s Bastion is one of the best-known landmarks in Budapest. It is located inIMG_9290.JPG the Buda Castle district; you simply can’t miss it. Stepping out of the Hilton Hotel, you are confronted with a fairy tale fortress with turrets, spires and mock Bastion features. My initial thoughts were it looked significantly different from the other historical buildings I had seen so far, beautiful, yes, but somehow artificial. The Fisherman’s Bastion was built in the 19th Century to serve as a lookout over the city. The purpose of the Bastion has never been used as an actual fortification for Buda.

As a lookout over the city, the Fisherman’s Bastian more than delivers. Panoramic views sweeping across the skyline in both directions. You’ll be spoilt for choice of which vista to snap.

Parliament

Budapest’s parliament building is hard to miss. It stands as a striking, landmark on the banks of the Danube. Any guesses as to which other famous European parliament influenced its’ design…

I had heard you could tour the parliament so as we circled the imposing spires to find the entrance, we were disappointed to find parliament was unexpectedly closed to the public due to an event. Disappointment aside a tour of the parliament is yet another reason for a return visit.

If you want to avoid our planning blunder then do book your tour tickets ahead of your trip via the Hungarian Parliament website: http://hungarianparliament.com/tours/

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Thermal Baths

So, this one is on every Budapest list of things to do I read. Public baths in Budapest have been around for centuries. Sitting on a matrix of 125 thermal springs, marinating in warm water has been part of everyday life since Roman times. Sadly, an afternoon ‘taking the waters’ wasn’t an option. With time being short and the weather being unbelievably hot we didn’t make it to one of the thermal baths. However, I had read up on which one to visit. My top three choices for thermal baths would have been

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  1. Gellert Baths: These smaller baths were top of my list. I didn’t want to go somewhere that would be completely swamped with tourists. I had also read the Gellert Baths have some of the most beautiful Art Nouveau décor seen anywhere in the city.
  2. Danubius Health Spa Margitsziget on Margaret Island: This was my second possible option. Although this modern spa lacks the old-world charm of some of its more famous counterparts, it does offer an extensive range of spa treatments. Feeling in need this weekend for a bit of pampering I put the Danubius Health Spa Margitsziget up there on my list.
  3. Szechanyi Baths: Finally, although I would have preferred a smaller bathing environment to escape the tourist crowds the Szechenyi Baths boast fifteen different pools and is undoubtedly one of the largest public baths Budapest has to offer. If a large scale, wedding cake experience is what you’re after then the Szechenyi Baths should be on your list.

Hospital in the rock

Everyone I had spoken to before going to Budapest had recommended the Hospital in the Rock. This was one attraction, firmly etched on my list of places to go. The Hospital in the Rock is part of a six-mile system of caves and tunnels used during World War Two. During World War Two it was a working hospital caring for the bombing victims and soldiers alike. The hospital was called back into service in 1956 during the revolution. The hospital was expanded to meet the potential growing threat of chemical and nuclear attacks during the Cold War.

Locating the museum initially felt like a bit of a mystery, and I sure do love a mystery. There were well-labelled maps in the castle complex, shiny billboards informatively suggesting we were but a short walk from the museum, but it did not appear. We must have walked around the uppermost part of the castle complex a number of times to no avail. I blame the 34-degree heat! Anyway, as if by magic on our second day and umpteenth loop we came across a lift shaft and staircase with a small sign indicating we were finally on the right track. At the bottom of the stairs turn right and nestled into the rock as you would assume was the museum, unimposing and humbly fronted it might easily have gone unnoticed if you weren’t on the hunt.

The museum was fascinating, horrifying and completely immersive. Photography is not permitted inside but I was honestly far too engrossed in my surroundings to think about taking pictures. Some images that stay with you without the need to scroll through your camera roll.

Nuclear war preparation films, operating rooms and wards the information and displays were informative and engaging. If you are visiting Budapest then the Hospital in the Rock should be at the top of your itinerary. My only caveat is that the tunnels are cold so take a jumper!

Where to eat & drink

New York Café

Whilst trying to ignore the sweat that was definitely turning my white t-shirt a fetching shade of translucent and listening carefully to the audio commentary on the bus my attention was piqued by the mention of The New York Café. The New York Café was a favourite haunt of writers, creatives, artists and newspaper editors. So, with literary history just around the corner, we decided we would make a beeline to the New York Cafe for dinner.

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I’m unsure what I was expecting but it wasn’t the elaborately decorated, multiple chandeliers imposing themselves on the room and intricate frescos lined walls that greeted us. Visually, it was stunning.

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The New York Café serves a variety of traditional Hungarian cuisine, more modern classics and of course a plethora of simply splendid cakes.

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Mazel Tov

Book. Book. Book. I’ll say it again…book. If you want to enjoy the gastronomical delights Snapseed - Copy (12).jpgof this Jewish Quarter garden party then you’ll need a reservation. We first tried for dinner on Saturday night to no avail but were lucky enough to grab a spot on Sunday lunchtime. Mazel Tov is a Middle Eastern restaurant set in the Jewish Quarter of the city. It has the ruin bar ambience combined with a conservatory. Cascading plants tumbling from the gallery perfectly set against the industrial interior design.

The cocktails and a Shawarma grill plate made for a perfect Sunday lunch.

Ruin Bars

Budapest now boasts a plentiful supply of these quirky secluded bars. Ruin bars litter the Old Jewish Quarter which was left to deteriorate after World War Two. The bars have popped up in the abandoned shells of buildings, shops and factories. Décor in the bars range from car boot sale chic to your nans living room circa 1970, whatever you choose you’re in for a visual and unusual treat.

Sadly, our Saturday night plans were cut short as I succumbed to the slightly less pleasant symptoms of heat exhaustion but a ruin bar beverage is up on my list for a return trip to the Hungarian capital.

Final Thoughts

Our weekend in Budapest was rammed full, blisteringly hot and proved to be a wonderful weekend escape. As with all our weekend adventures I left feeling keen to return and unearth more cultural gems of this glorious city. I would love to return in the winter months. I reckon a marinade in the world-famous baths with snow falling around you would be fairly close winter weekend perfection.

Fire, Plague, Rebellion and Roman ruins: A Walking Tour of London

All too often we never actually explore the cities we live in. When we think of travel and adventure, we tend to neglect what’s in our own back garden. So, with a couple of hours to spare and after some speedy internet research, I opted for a walking tour of London with London Walks. I chose a two-hour walk encompassing London’s Roman history, through the ages of great fires, plague, uprisings and rebellion to a sneak peek at London’s most modern architecture and the stories behind the buildings.

All walking tours with London Walks are £10 and there is no need to pre-book, you can simply show up.

On arrival at Tower Hill tube station, you couldn’t fail to see the meet point. Around eighteen eager and well-equipped individuals stood poised for the off around the Tower Hill Tram coffee stand. Our guide for the afternoon introduced himself as Ian, completed the expected pleasantries of where we were all from and with that, we hit the road.

Why we build the wall…

Our first stop took us through a small entry connected to the City Hotel, a few hundred metres from our start point. Unless you were clued up, one would never know that nestled at the back of the courtyard stands a section of the old Roman and Medieval city wall. The original Roman city of ‘Londinium’ didn’t originally have a city wall but after Boudicca attacked the city in the year 61 AD the Romans upped their defence game.

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The distinct layers of the wall clearly show the Roman foundations with the later, Medieval additions. The wall outlined the boundary of the City of London which today is marked by the black bollards. We were certainly off to a promising start.

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London’s burning!

IMG_9635.JPGFamed for his diary, our second stop took us to a commemorative bust outside the Four Seasons Hotel. Just off the appropriately named Pepys Street. It was at this point, Ian, our guide regaled us with the tale of the Great Fire of London. Thanks to Pepys our knowledge of this point in London’s past is so detailed.

As an official in government at the time, the diaries of Pepys which of course he wrote in code; have significantly helped paint a vivid picture of London life for well to do Londoners and the poorer classes during the years 1660 -1669.

The Great Fire of London represented a pivotal moment for the city and Ian’s gripping and engaging storytelling held the group captivated.

If you were lucky, they would hang you….

Moving forward from 1666, we headed up to the top of Tower Hill to Trinity Square Gardens. This picturesque city lunch spot with an unobstructed view of the Tower of London was home to the gallows from 1381 – 1747. Public executions were a big deal. Executions drew crowds from all over the capital and organisers even built grandstands to host the masses baying for blood.

The tower hill scaffold saw high-profile executions of Thomas Moore, Thomas Cromwell, and even the Arch Bishop of Canterbury in 1381 Simon Sudbury. The latter being executed by a frenzied mob.

Our guide was keen to describe how prisoners were detained in the tower, tortured then brought to Tower Hill for execution. If you were fortunate, you’d receive a swift death by hanging or execution. Unluckier prisoners had to endure being dragged through the streets to the gallows, hung until near death, disembowelled and finally you were quartered! Things were pretty gruesome back then. Even if you were granted quick execution there’s a good chance that the axeman was drunk, so getting a clean cut first go wasn’t always guaranteed.

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Looking at the lists of executed men it is clear that this spot played a bloody yet important role in London’s past.

‘Ring a ring o’ roses……..we all fall down.’

Sticking with the more unfortunate fates to befall Londoners, we made our way to St Olaves Churchyard. A year before the Great Fire took hold London was hit by a devastating bout of bubonic plague. The disease swept through the city and no amount of wealth or piety could keep it from your door, 15% of the London population died.

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St Olaves Church is noteworthy for three reasons, initially, it was the final resting place for many plague victims. Second against all odds the church dodged the Great Fire and finally although significantly damaged it withstood the worst of the Blitz during the Second World War.

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A plucky little church, with a considerable history and well worth half an hour of your time.

French Ordinary Court

As our tour meandered through the city, we passed through a particularly nondescript passage called French Ordinary Court. Our guide explained the passage had taken its name from a restaurant once on the site called the French Ordinary. Frequented by the French ambassadors and diplomats during the 1700s the French Ordinary was apparently the only place in London where you could find top-notch French cuisine; certainly not a problem for London foodies today.

As we wandered past countless other street names I mused on the backstories and origins. I would love to uncover the reasons behind some of the name choices. If you’ve got a good story, please let me know.

It’s all about shipping

It had never occurred to me that London had such a rich background in shipping. Ian, our guide was keen to direct our attention to a behemoth glass structure with all the industrial elements pulled from the inside out. The building at 71 Fenchurch Street is the Lloyds Register and is the architectural triumph of Richard Rogers.

Ian explained in some detail the history of the Lloyds Register and how the insurance of ships has been big business for London throughout the centuries. Lloyds even insured the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic.

Gherkin vs. The Romans

Without doubt an architectural triumph, however, the Gherkin site we learned has a Snapseed - Copy (2)much older past. The building on the site survived not only the Great Fire but the Blitz. However, an IRA bomb destroyed the area making way for the Norman Foster masterpiece we see today. During its construction, the body of a Roman girl was found. In 2012 the authorities felt it right to give her a formal funeral and rebury her as close to her original resting place as possible.

This stop was another reminder of just how extensive London’s history is and that the Roman settlement of 2500 years ago really has shaped the city we live in today and is always there just underneath our feet.

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Inside out monstrosity or architectural genius?

Ian, our guide was incredibly well informed on the architecture of the city and after leaving the mighty shadow of the Gherkin we were then introduced to another of Richard Rogers bizarre inside out structures, the Lloyds building. However, as Ian explained the Lloyds building is not all exposed metalwork and bare corkscrew shafts snaking their way up the building exterior, no, the top floor holds a secret. Apparently, for those lucky enough to be invited, there is an original Robert Adams 18th Century dining room occupying the top floor. Our guide sadly wasn’t able to tell us how to snag a dinner reservation.

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Meat, Butterbeer and Victorian opulence

Next up on our adventure into London’s past was the Leadenhall Meat Market. An opulent Victorian structure with gilded wood panels painted in rich primary and secondary colours. All very elaborate for a meat market. Outside each shop front, the old hooks for hanging the meat still remain and are even in use by one of the restaurants. Sadly, its meat market days are over but you can enjoy a decent meal and a little bit of shopping in this fabulous building.

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One of the highlights of the tour came as we were leaving the market when Ian directed our attention to a thoroughly inconspicuous section and shop which Ian informed us was, in fact, the entrance to Diagon Alley and the humble opticians was the Leaky Cauldron. This little fact nugget left my heart racing and has inspired me to check out on to the Harry Potter walking tour also offered by London Walks. Maybe my own lost owl will catch up with me over a butterbeer? Who knows?

Dickensian glory and Hellfire…but make a reservation.

The restaurant that never opens. If it’s a swift pint, you’re looking for in the City of Attachment-3.jpegLondon then the George and Vulture is not the establishment for you! But if you find your self on Lombard street between the hours of 12 pm and 2.30 pm, then get yourself to the George and Vulture. Dickens was an ardent fan, citing the restaurant over twenty times in his novel The Pickwick Papers. But the Dickensian link is not the George and Vulture’s only claim to fame. Once the home of Sir Francis Dashwood’s infamous Hell Fire Club the George and Vulture was the meeting place of London society whose who during the 1740s & 1750s.

Rum, Sugar & Slaves Jamaican trading fuelled by coffee

Turning the corner from the George and Vulture, you come to the Jamaica Wine Bar, once the Jamaica Coffee Shop. Today it’s fairly normal to have a working lunch or a breakfast meeting then return to your desk to crack on with the ‘real work.’ However, during the 17th and 18th Century, businesses didn’t always have their own office so, naturally business had to take place elsewhere. Elsewhere ended up being coffee shops. Each coffeehouse had an affinity with a particular business or trade. The lost world of the London Coffee House is definitely I am going to read up on. However, for the Jamaica Coffee House it was all about the business of the West Indies.

Fancy retailers, purveyors of alcohol and upmarket merchants

Attachment-2.jpegOur next stop brought us to The Royal Exchange which endured on the same site since Queen Elizabeth the First’s reign. Ian explained it was Queen Elizabeth the First who granted its ‘Royal’ status. The building has existed in three different guises. The Royal Exchange mark one burned during the Great Fire of London. Mark two again succumbed to fire and the third offering was rebuilt in the 1840s, still standing in all its glory today. In terms of its use, The Royal Exchange has come full circle in its lifetime. The current building is the perfect city spot for a glass of bubbly and snapping up a box of Fortnum and Mason’s finest tea and biscuits. Sadly there wasn’t built in shopping time on the tour but there was definitely a Fortnum and Mason box of Earl Grey with my name on it….one for another day.

An impregnable fortress at the heart of British finance

One of the best stories Ian told was undoubtedly the story of a ballsy sewage worker. In the 19th Century he wrote to the bank explaining that their gold vault was not secure. If they didn’t believe him, he would meet them there at a specified time and date. Never the less, when they appeared, he was waiting for them due to easy access via the sewers. Such a security oversight led the bank to sure up its defences. You certainly can’t leave the world’s second-largest gold bullion sore vulnerable to theft.

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Pray the right way or face the fine….

Our penultimate stop was Mansion House. I genuinely hadn’t realised there was an actual Mansion House and the tube stop was, of course, named after it. The Mansion House is home to the Lord Mayor of the City of London. A post which has been in existence since the 14th Century. Ian explained that the House itself now a Grade 1 listed building; was essentially, built with funds provided by non-elected city officials who were fined because of lack of attendance at the appropriate churches for prayer. Wealthy individuals were suddenly elected to the lofty position of Sheriff of the City of London regardless of their Christian denomination; therefore, they were required to either take communion in an Anglican church or pay up. As anticipated most officials ended up paying the fine, leaving us with quite the building to admire today.

St Pauls Cathedral – Version 1

We parted ways with Ian at St Stephen Walbrook church. This domed church was designed by Christopher Wren and is the precursor for his grander designs at St Pauls Cathedral.

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Once again there is a Roman connection as under the church runs the Walbrook River, a primary reason for Roman settlements position. The church site has maintained its Roman heritage as it was once the site of a Roman Temple of Mithras. In recent years the church has seen the creation of the Samaritans thanks to the vision of Rector Chad Varah.

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Inside St Stephen Walbrook there is a stillness and heavy sense of history. The main body of the church is filled with light and space and your eye is drawn to the wonderful Henry Moor alter. The church is a harmonious juxtaposition between traditional and modern. It was the perfect place to finish our tour as the church perfectly encapsulates the full breadth of London’s past and present.

The Roman Cult under our feet

After a tantalising introduction from our guide before we headed into St Stephen Walbrook church, it would have been remiss of me to forgo a visit to the Roman Temple of Mithras located underneath the new Bloomberg building just across the street from the church.

The entrance to the exhibition and Temple is just to the left of the underground sign on Walbrook Street so it’s not too tricky to miss. Upon arrival I was asked if I had a booking, of course, I didn’t but this was no issue and entrance to the exhibition was free. I was duly provided with a booklet and information on the next Temple viewing. Temple viewings take place every twenty minutes, allowing you time to digest the information before you descend to the Temple itself.

The exhibition is split over three levels. Street-level is dedicated to some of the Roman archaeological finds from the construction. Standing in front of a meticulously organised display case I was completely lost in the fragments of human life on show. But with only twenty minutes before the Temple tour, I needed to educate myself on the Cult of Mithras. I headed downstairs to the second part of the exhibition which provided a clear explanation of the Cult of Mithras and drew your attention to specific imagery which would be present in the temple. At 4.20 PM I made my way down again to the temple. It was eerily dark as I made my way along the glass walkway encircling the temple. The preservation is excellent and the way in which light and sound have been used really gives you a sense of the temple in action during the Roman period.

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If you have a spare hour during your trip to London or even a lunch break, I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Temple of Mithras and even better, it is completely free of charge.

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Final thoughts

I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon peeling back the layers of London’s streets. I loved that the tour gave a real insight into the intricate and varied history of London’s past. As a typical teacher, I love learning and found the walking tour a great interactive way to soak up some knowledge of my home city. It definitely didn’t feel like I was just ticking off the big attractions. Ian, our guide was knowledgeable, had a great sense of humour and often had a personal story to help paint a more vivid image of the area or building we were looking at.

Without question, I will be stepping out with London Walks again soon. I’ve got my eye on the Jack the Ripper Walk!

Happy travels,

Jess